Scholars initiate research to ‘jumpstart new field of inquiry’ on virtues
The sciences, the humanities and religion all provide perspectives on what constitutes good behavior, according to scholars leading the New Science of Virtues project and awarding grants to researchers at Chicago and other institutions to further explore the subject.
“The project,” said Jean Bethke Elshtain, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor in the Divinity School, “is an attempt to bring together scholars from a variety of disciplines to explore the question of virtue and establish an organized, coherent body of knowledge, thus, creating a ‘science’ of virtue.
“It doesn’t mean that everything about virtue can be tested in a laboratory, but rather it passes certain tests of coherence and logic, makes sense, and has data to support certain kinds of conclusions,” said Elshtain, a co-principal investigator. Other co-principal investigators are Don Browning, the Alexander Campbell Professor of Religious Ethics and the Social Sciences Emeritus in the Divinity School, and Howard Nusbaum, Chair of Psychology, who also is scientific advisor for the project.
The New Science of Virtues project, generated by the interdisciplinary research incubator on campus called the Arete Initiative, welcomed 40 scholars from such fields as philosophy, neuroscience, anthropology and economics to present potential studies at a January conference. Researchers of 19 of the proposed projects were chosen to share $3 million from the John Templeton Foundation to pursue their research.
“The goal of the New Science of Virtues Project is to try to jumpstart a new field of inquiry,” Nusbaum said. UChicago scholars whose projects were chosen are:
- James Heckman, the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor in Economics, whose team will look at “The Virtue of Self-Control.” This study will examine how self-control develops as a way for people to perform worthy activities and overcome less-worthy rival goals.
- Farr Curlin, Assistant Professor in Medicine, and his team will undertake a study titled “The Good Physician.” This project will be the first national, longitudinal study of the moral and professional formation of American physicians over the course of their medical training. Curlin and his team will be examining the various forces at work during the training of physicians that have an impact on the development of a good or virtuous physician.
Scholars said the interdisciplinary nature of the research will help them explore the topics more thoroughly.
“I had a deep sense of what a pleasure it would be to learn from people who are so deeply formed in a discipline that I only know at a very surface level,” Curlin said. “Their understanding can inform my work, making it much more precise, and then, in the end, come up with interpretations and inferences that are really sound.”
The project leaders also expect that the scholarly community established around the topic of virtues will stimulate a whole new conversation. “One of the goals is to get a wide academic and cultural discussion going,” Browning said.
The New Science of Virtues project website, www.scienceofvirtues.org, will facilitate this goal by providing a public platform for scholarly conversation.
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